Two weeks ago, Newsweek's Matthew Phillips reported that some photographers and other journalists were being "blockaded" from reporting on the oil spill by the government and BP:
The latest instance of denied press access comes from Belle Chasse, La.-based Southern Seaplane Inc., which was scheduled to take a New Orleans Times-Picayune photographer for a flyover on Tuesday afternoon, and says it was denied permission once BP officials learned that a member of the press would be on board.
“We are not at liberty to fly media, journalists, photographers, or scientists,” the company said in a letter it sent on Tuesday to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). “We strongly feel that the reason for this massive [temporary flight restriction] is that BP wants to control their exposure to the press.”
This looks like salacious story of (even more) corporate malfeasance by BP and the government restricting the freedom of the press, but the Federal Aviation Administration says it's a misrepresentation of the facts. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown explained to me that the temporary flight restriction (TFR) zone issued around the Gulf spill was requested by the Coast Guard. The request for a first-level TFR, restricting air traffic to only emergency crafts, came on May 2, and the zone has since increased in size as the extent of the spill has spread. Brown says the Gulf area, which normally sees 10,000 helicopter flights a day, has seen double that since the oil spill as emergency and military crews work to stop and contain the flow.
On May 28, however, the FAA issued an addendum to the TFR regarding exceptions to the emergency aircraft restriction. It reads:
Exceptions: operations not covered by the above authorizations may be permitted on a case-by-case basis dependent upon safety issues, operational requirements, weather conditions, and traffic volume. Flights authorized under this exception must be conducted under visual flight rules. Pilots requesting flights under this exception must contact the houma deepwater horizon incident air operations center at 985-493-7804 between the hours of 0600-1800 cst, a minimum of 24 hours prior to desired flight time. Operators should be prepared to provide precise details of their requested flight including: pilots name and contact information, company/organization, purpose of flight, type aircraft, callsign, ingress/egress points and times, requested altitude and route of flight. Pilots will then be provided with additional instructions for obtaining final approval and beacon code assignment.
Brown says that since May 28, every request by journalists made through the FAA's public affairs office (organized into press pools in single helicopters) has been granted the above exception. Furthermore, she says, those journalists who say they were denied flight access were probably working through seaplane companies who did not receive exceptions. "If they had come through public affairs for the FAA, I would have been working to figure something out," Brown says.
What about the claim that BP is involved in keeping reporters and photographers away from the spill? Brown says this comes from a misunderstanding. FAA and Coast Guard officials were working out of a BP office building in New Orleans to handle the TFR, she says, and a BP contractor at a nearby desk was helping man the phones during the crisis. This led to some confusion about BP's role in the operation of the air space, which Brown says is absolutely none.
"If Newsweek had bothered to call me," Brown says, this part of the story could have been cleared up.